REVIEW — It has been estimated in theater circles that William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is so popular that at any given moment around the world, there is some version of the famed play in production. The play has the distinction of being the most-produced play on Broadway with over 66 productions dating back to 1761, said Utah Shakespeare Festival artistic director Brian Vaughn.
That being true, you might think that Vaughn, who also directed this season’s production of Hamlet, might shy away from bringing the tragedy back to the festival stage.
But, Vaughn said in the program’s director notes, Hamlet’s quest for truth in a corrupt world is a timeless one.
“The fight for good vs. evil within an ever-plagued society built on corruption, greed, and crime is a story that could easily be ripped from contemporary headlines,” Vaughn said.
In Hamlet, the peace of the small nation of Denmark is under threat from neighboring Norway as the Norwegian Prince plans to invade. But the real disarray comes from within the royal circle. Young Hamlet is mourning the sudden loss of his father and lamenting his mother’s hasty remarriage to his uncle Claudius who has seized the throne under suspect means.
After a supernatural encounter with the ghost of his father, Hamlet learns that his father, the king, was murdered by Claudius. The ghost then tasks Hamlet with avenging his “foul and unnatural murder.”
With so much history and contemporary relevance, it is interesting to examine some facts from Hamlet to see how this year’s festival version stacks up.
Hamlet fun facts
- The first actor to ever play Hamlet was Richard Burbage. Burbage was the lead actor of Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men. It is believed that Shakespeare himself played the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
In this production, Hamlet is played by veteran actor Quinn Mattfeld. As the character whom Vaughn calls “the most intuitve,” Hamlet chooses the guise of insanity to seek the truth of what happened to his father.
Navigating between a variety of emotions and various stages of sanity, Mattfeld is brilliant. Though he nails many of Hamlet’s most well-known soliloquies, it is his more nuanced and subtle movements and facial expressions that really show the devil in the details.
In act 3, scene 2, Hamlet says, “the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.” Mattfeld’s Hamlet is a fully realized human being whose story the audience can, if not relate to, at least sympathize with. For Mattfeld alone, the production is worth seeing.
Fortunately, Mattfeld is complemented by a deeply talented cast – most notably Armin Shimerman as Polonius, Jacqueline Antaramian as Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) and Emma Geer as Ophelia – all of whom work together to make an age-old story seem lively again.
- Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play. Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” is the shortest.
At just over 4,000 lines, Hamlet can run as long as five hours. The festival’s production does feel a tad long, coming in at about three-and-a-half hours with a 15 minute intermission. That said, Vaughn with his clear direction, and Mattfeld with his impressive grasp of the text, keep the production pacing a decent clip.
The festival’s Hamlet feels sort of like a tale of two parts. The bulk of the production leading up to the intermission could easily be a comedy, while the second half delves deeper and darker into the more complex and sometimes sinister nature of the characters.
- “(Hamlet) has been produced all over the world, in every language, with every imaginable casting scenario, and in every form of design,” Vaughn said in his notes.
Taking inspiration from authors Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, Vaughn parallels his version of Hamlet’s Denmark with Imperial Russia and a time of extreme nationalism.
The most striking thing about the choice to update the time period is how beautiful it allows the production to be.
Staged in the Randall L. Jones Theatre, the costume design (Bill Black), the scenic design (Jason Lajka) and especially the lighting design (William C. Kirkham), offer some breathtakingly stunning visual images.
- The first person reported to have used a real skull during the gravedigger scene in a production of Hamlet was television show “Doctor Who” actor David Tennant.
According to the BBC, the skull was bequeathed to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982 by pianist Andre Tchaikowsky when he died in hopes that it would be used on stage. It wasn’t until August of 2008 that the skull made its stage debut with Tennant at the helm as Hamlet.
Though the festival’s production does not use a real skull, their production has real depth of character and emotion and offers audiences an incredible theater experience done with panache.
Hamlet is suitable for most audiences, except for some preteens who may not be prepared for the intense story line. Hamlet contains some bawdy Shakespearean language, fight scenes and murder.
The Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of Hamlet can be seen Tuesdays at 2 p.m. and Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. in the Randall L. Jones Theatre at the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts, 195 W. Center Street, Cedar City, until Oct. 12.
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- What: Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Hamlet.”
- When: Hamelt runs Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Tuesdays at 2 p.m. until Oct. 12.
- Where: Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts, Randall L. Jones Theatre, 195 W. Center Street, Cedar City.
- Cost: Varies by seating section.
- Purchase tickets: Online, by calling 1-800-752-9849 (1-800-playtix) or at the box office at the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts.
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